Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals - NY Times KATHERINE KINZLER

Spring begins in Hoboken- March 11, 2016
This is a portion of a full article that appears in the New York Times on further benefits of being bilingual. This article focuses on an often undercooked skills. Previous studies have shown benefits in cognitive skills, self regulation, critical thinking, and problem solving. All reasons why some colleagues and I wanted to bring a dual language program to the children of the public schools of Hoboken, NJ. Unfortunately, that proposal was rejected by the Hoboken Board of Education and led to the submission and eventual approval of the Hola Dual Language School. The school is now regionally recognized as a leader in dual language innovation and instruction and standardized test scores are through the roof. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the children of Hoboken still do not have bilingual education as a viable option as the Hoboken Public School District has been either unable or unwilling to offer a dual language program to their students. Perhaps that is one reason why the waiting list for the Hola Dual Language program is hundreds of children long. -Dr. Petrosino

BEING bilingual has some obvious advantages. Learning more than one language enables new conversations and new experiences. But in recent years, psychology researchers have demonstrated some less obvious advantages of bilingualism, too. For instance, bilingual children may enjoy certain cognitive benefits, such as improved executive function — which is critical for problem solving and other mentally demanding activities.
Now, two new studies demonstrate that multilingual exposure improves not only children’s cognitive skills but also their social abilities.

One study from my developmental psychology lab — conducted in collaboration with the psychologists Boaz Keysar, Zoe Liberman and Samantha Fan at the University of Chicago, and published last year in the journal Psychological Science — shows that multilingual children can be better at communication than monolingual children.

In a second study, forthcoming in the journal Developmental Science, my colleagues and I examined the effects of multilingual exposure on even younger children: 14- to 16-month-old babies, who are hardly speaking at all. In this study, led by Zoe Liberman and in collaboration with Professor Keysar and the psychologist Amanda Woodward, babies were shown two versions of the same object, such as a banana, one of which was visible to both the infant and an adult, the other visible to the baby yet hidden from the adult’s view. When the adult asked the baby for “the banana,” the baby might hand her either object — both were bananas, after all — yet if the baby understood the social context, he would reach more often for the banana that the adult could see.

We found that babies in monolingual environments reached equally often for the two bananas. Babies in multilingual environments, including those who were exposed to a second language only minimally, already understood the importance of adopting another’s perspective for communication: They reached more often for the banana that the adult could see.

Multilingual exposure, it seems, facilitates the basic skills of interpersonal understanding. Of course, becoming fully bilingual or multilingual is not always easy or possible for everyone. But the social advantage we have identified appears to emerge from merely being raised in an environment in which multiple languages are experienced, not from being bilingual per se. This is potentially good news for parents who are not bilingual themselves, yet who want their children to enjoy some of the benefits of multilingualism.

Katherine Kinzler is an associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University.